Parachuting from the nail-biting thrills of the Indian Premier League, where they represented various franchises, the Men in Blue had to pause a while before getting used to the rhythms of the ICC World Cup. The step up from Twenty20s to conventional 50-overs-a-side games, might seem an organic one and yet this isn’t entirely about rapid runs and inflationary asking-rates.
ODIs are constructed upon a fine start leading to a steady consolidation that paves the way for the slog. Add to it the middle overs where teams either gain heft or lose their way and you get an idea of how incremental gains have a larger resonance. Seen in that light, Virat Kohli’s men did remarkably well in their opening fixture against South Africa at Southampton’s Hampshire Bowl on Wednesday. The six-wicket triumph may have looked easy but it demanded hard-work and a steely resolve, and India delivered on all those counts.
The Proteas are no longer the force they once were and to make it worse key fast bowlers Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi have been laid low by injury. Yet, Faf du Plessis still had a Kagiso Rabada and a Chris Morris to fall back upon, and the batting had bits-and-pieces players deep into the tail. But Kohli found the right men to counter these precise strengths of the rival unit.
Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and even Hardik Pandya revelled on a surface that promised runs but instead offered more help as the weather turned grim and the clouds hovered. Spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, wristy and nagging, kept a tight leash and in restricting South Africa to 227 for nine, half the battle was won. “It was a low-scoring game and that was because of how the pitch was throughout. We were very professional with the new ball and in the middle overs, the spinners picked five wickets between them,” Kohli said.
Chahal, who scalped four, varied his air-speed, got his lengths right, had a lovely dip and except when Morris wielded the long-handle, generally kept a tight leash. The former chess player has a ticking brain and he rated his dismissal of du Plessis as special: “He is their main batsman. I had planned his wicket. My ball was drifting pretty well, so I thought that I can bowl the slider on the off-stump, and it drifted onto middle-stump and he didn't pick that. It hit the pad and went on to the stumps.”
Small totals can affect the pacing of the chase. Do you go at break-neck speed and finish the game or hang in for a while, gauge the situation and eventually win? India lost Shikhar Dhawan early but with Rohit Sharma remaining unbeaten on 122 (144b, 13x4, 2x6), Kohli’s men found a spine that lasted. This wasn’t the Rohit, who blitzes once he gets past his 50. This was a batsman of pedigree, buckling down, silencing his ego and being determined to stay till the end. “He controlled the game beautifully and allowed the others to display themselves and string in small little partnerships. He played the perfect innings on that kind of a pitch and against a bowling attack that was threatening to pick up wickets at any stage,” Kohli said.
Rohit’s effort and the performance of K.L. Rahul and M.S. Dhoni, will bolster the team as it gears up for sterner battles, starting with the contest against Australia at the Oval here on Sunday.
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